For years, Bruce and Cathy Hunt admired their neighbours' 1906 Arts and Crafts-style home. Every time they walked by, Cathy dreamed of owning the home with its gabled roof sweeping down over its wide front verandah.
Then, says Cathy, "One Friday evening, as I drove by the house, I saw someone hammering in a For Sale sign on the front boulevard."
Within minutes, she called the Real Estate Agent and made an appointment to view the house first thing the next morning. As soon as she walked in and saw the original pine built-in cabinetry, wood beams and stained glass windows, she told the agent, "we will be buying this house and making it our home, I just need to tell my husband."
Even with all those gracious details, it turns out to have been a mail-order house. The plans and all building materials were ordered from a catalogue.
Bruce says: "From what we have learned and researched, we think it's a Sears Roebuck kit home. For the first two years we lived here, I'd come in the front door and I couldn't believe it was really ours. I love the character and the charm of the home."
In the early part of last century, it was quite common to order your house from a catalogue. It would arrive either as prefabricated sections or precut components along with blueprints and instructions. And as with today's new developments, you could add dÃcor details and upgrades to the plan you chose.
In the West, the largest kit home company was BC Mills Timber and Trading co., says Les Henry, historian and author of Catalogue Houses: Eatons' and Others. Henry has devoted years researching mail order homes and has written books and articles about the subject.
From 1904 to around 1911, BC Mills shipped hundreds prefabricated homes and commercial buildings (mainly banks), across the West coast. "There are many examples of their homes in Vancouver and elsewhere in BC, and a few on the prairies as well," says Henry.
As the largest mail-order company in the country, Canadian Aladdin Co.homes were pre-cut at the factory but were not prefab, explains Henry. The lumber, materials and detailed building instructionsdown to the last nail and drawer pullwere shipped to the closest railway station. The customer took it from there.
Eaton's got into the lucrative catalogue home business in the 1910s and 1920s, offering 40 different house plans, most of which were bought by farmers in the Prairies. Its most popular style was the one-and-a-half storey, and of those, the most common style was the Earlsfield.
Chicago-based Sears, Roebuck and Co.sold more than 100,000 homes, mostly in the US, from 1908 to 1940. Customers could choose from 447 different housing styles. Sears, Roebuck also had a short-lived mail-order presence in the early forties in both BC and Newfoundland (which was not yet part of Canada).
Retired architect Curtis Eyestone can spend hours regaling visitors about his 1908 Sears, Roebuck house. He loves nothing more than to share with guests some of the unique characteristics of his 7,500 square foot "architectural masterpiece." He's spent 20-plus years restoring his mail-order home to its earlier splendor.
Eyestone has poured nearly $900,000 into its restoration.
"I have two rooms to finish," he says. "In May of 1992, you couldn't even get near the front door because of the overgrowth of blackberry brambles. Now look at it... it has been an immense pleasure to own and restore this valuable heritage structure."
There are hundreds of home owners across BC who are as passionate about kit homes as Eyestone, including Alix Noble. Six years ago, she bought a BC Mills 1906 prefab two-storey home in East Vancouver.
"Soon after we moved in, we were contacted by the BC Heritage Foundation to make sure we knew the house had a story," says Noble. "We were put in touch with a neighbour who had been fighting to stop the tearing down of two other BC Mills homes."
The house originally cost $675.00, plus shipping and labour costs, which came to $1750 (excluding the lot). Over the decades, the 2,800-square-foot home has undergone several renovations. When she and her husband began their restoration work, they found the original shiplap inside the walls and on the ceiling, which had been covered over the years with wallpaper.
Noble says, "Our home has also been a real labour of love for us. We couldn't imagine living anywhere else this home is rich in history and stunning craftsmanship that is hard to duplicate today."